Behind "Being Human": Highlights from Solstice FWD 2018

With the line between man and machine more blurred than ever before, what makes us truly human? When it comes to emerging technology and the future of digital business, who’s really in control? How is our digital landscape not just affecting but enhancing the human condition?

These were just some of the questions we set out to explore with our digital innovation summit, Solstice FWD, held June 21 in Chicago. Led by a lineup of industry leaders and modern innovators, the third annual symposium — themed “Being Human” — explored some of the most compelling ideas about the intersection of humanity and technology.

Beyond the stage, attendees engaged with emerging technology experiences designed to showcase cutting-edge technology in action — think AI, VR, and blockchain. Built and led by our R&D team, Solstice Labs, along with our clients and partners, these experiences demonstrated the ways emerging technology can (and should) serve as a conduit for genuine human connection.

From learning to ride a backwards bike to the existential questions surrounding emerging technology and digital transformation, here are a few key themes from FWD 2018.


With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Digital is never slowing down, and businesses can’t afford to stand still in the face of change. But what happens if (or perhaps when) the humans who created technology simply can’t keep up? When it comes down to it, who’s really in control?

Keynote speaker Laurie Segall, Senior Technology Correspondent at CNN, has made a career of asking tough questions like these and wasted no time directing them toward FWD attendees, exploring how their organizations can push the envelope in the Digital Age.

After all, she “knew the minnows before they were sharks,” having interviewed the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey before they became household names. She urged attendees to start seeing technology “through the lens of the human condition” to avoid their predecessors’ failure to recognize and respect the impact these innovations can have on the future of humanity.

It was the same ethical dilemma that James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, explored in his fascinating yet sobering address.

“AI is the most profound look at who we are — it involves ethics, language, neuroscience, and perception,” he said. “AI asks us what it is we hope to do when we can mirror cognition in a human machine.”

So how should humanity contend with this ethical challenge on the horizon? For James, our greatest hope lies in one of the most fundamental elements of the human condition — our propensity for connection and collaboration. His message was clear: to survive the next phase of technological advancement, we must work together to determine whether it is man or machine who will ultimately be in control.


We Can’t Get No Satisfaction (and That’s a Good Thing)

With so much uncertainty in the future of digital business, leaders looking to remain relevant in the Digital Age can learn a thing or two from the Rolling Stones. Or at least that’s the opinion of Solstice CEO Kelly Manthey, who believes a profound discomfort with “good enough” is a human trait we would do well to not just appreciate but to capitalize on.

Kelly urged attendees to “stay dissatisfied” in her opening address, saying, “Everyone here speaking today is dissatisfied — they have no room for the status quo in their world.”

She wasn’t the only one to recognize the inherent value in humans’ perpetual discontent. J Schwan, founder of Solstice and CEO at Solstice parent company St Ives, expressed that this very quality is a key element for innovation not just in theory but in practice.

With traditional organizational structures in the crosshairs, J outlined the way Solstice and St Ives have facilitated across-the-aisle interactions by throwing out siloed departmental structures for a new organizational methodology he calls the “Connected Customer Experience” (CCX).

“Rigid organizational models put in place during the Industrial Age have run their course,” he said. His recommendation was simple: take the opportunity to throw out the status quo and put human connection back at the center of business. “Connectedness cannot be faked or automated,” he emphasized. “It is truly what makes us human.”

To inspire attendees to find the courage to challenge these organizational models and cultural norms, his talk ended with a surprise performance by Musicality, a Chicago-based youth choir made famous by “America’s Got Talent,” who sang their rendition of “This Is Me” from the hit movie “The Greatest Showman.” 


What Does Transformation Look Like?

How does throwing out the status quo look in practice? With the stage set by Kelly and J, industry leaders and veterans of digital transformation campaigns brought it all into perspective with their own stories from the front lines.

Steven Fradkin, President of Wealth Management at Northern Trust, recalled how his organization achieved transformation in unexpected ways. 

“I work in an office, and I don’t have a ping-pong table,” he quipped, noting that his organization’s own brand of digital transformation was fueled by such small yet impactful changes — think swapping yellow legal pads for iPads and speaking “with” versus “at” their clients. “We changed the way we thought,” he continued. “It was bigger than tools.”

Mark Ardito, DVP of Digital Delivery at HCSC, highlighted the concept of "jumping the shark" and challenged what digital transformation truly means.Transformation is more than just writing better code, deploying to a cloud,” he said. The tools and platforms will only get you so far. You must focus on outcomes over outputs. 

Robert Miles, Head of Technical Architecture and Development Modernization for JPMorgan Chase, stressed the importance of a cultural shift during his on-stage discussion with Pivotal’s James Watters. “It requires a shift from a culture of control to one of enabling a culture of empowerment,” he said.

His message, as well as what emerged as the central theme for FWD 2018, was summed up perfectly by his favorite quote: “I used to come to work and say, ‘No’; now I come to work and say, ‘Yes.’”


A Transformative State of Mind

Of course, no other speaker focused on the importance of saying “yes” to challenges better than Minda Dentler, the first female wheelchair athlete to complete the Ironman World Championship.

Having finished a race that had been considered seemingly impossible to complete within its rigid cutoff times, Minda was the embodiment of grit, persistence, and perseverance in the face of extraordinary adversity. A self-described underdog with a strong competitive streak, her talk centered on what she felt was her biggest obstacle: the belief she could actually do it.

“Most people think they have to say it to believe it. I believe that you have to believe it to say it,” she said, imploring attendees to throw out excuses in pursuit of their goal. “My question to you is this: ‘What is your race? What is success to you?’”

Minda’s story of conquering others’ expectations of her abilities — as well as her own expectations — encapsulated the fundamentally human experience of going further, pushing harder, and persistence despite setbacks in the race for success.


Just Like Riding a Bike (Sort of)

The mere practice of doing things differently — and persisting in the face of obstacles and frustrations — is half the battle when it comes to digital transformation. That was the idea behind the backwards bike, introduced during Kelly’s opening keynote and demonstrated by one unsuspecting audience member who attempted to ride it across the stage.

With its steering mechanism switched, the unassuming two-wheeler challenged conventional bike-riding wisdom. It served as the perfect metaphor for the sometimes-daunting journey toward digital transformation that requires more than know-how to accomplish.

Using the bike as just one example of how conventional wisdom is no longer the be all and end all of organizational success, Kelly urged the audience to be persistent in championing change within their organizations — even when that calls for staying optimistic and ignoring naysayers along the way.


The conversation doesn’t end here — we’ll explore the central themes, key takeaways, and insights from FWD 2018 over the next few weeks. Interested in attending future events? Shoot me a note at